Ypres - The Fall of Passchendaele

Posted on Wednesday 31st October 2012

the fall of passchendaele and the end of the third battle of ypres
With the bulk of the defending ridges seized and the high and firmer ground to the south firmly in Canadian hands the time had come to launch the assault on Passchendaele.
Currie replaced the two Canadian divisions in the line with the 1st and the 2nd, which took up their positions during the night of 4 November. Currie’s plan was to take Passchendaele (2nd Division) and Mosselmarkt and Goudberg (1st Division) in the first phase, launched on 6 November and the second phase would take place on 10 November to extend the line along the ridge to the north and would take the area around Vindictive Cross Roads and Hill 52, the high point of the ridge on the road to Westroosebeke.
The Germans had also carried out a relief, removing the shattered 39th Division. This had had a good record at the Somme, but not done so well at the latter stages of the Battle of Verdun in the fighting of December; however it was rested and re-equipped with good quality conscripts and had performed creditably under the most trying of conditions. Its replacement was the 11th Division, which had only arrived from the Champagne on 3 November. This Formation had a good fighting record, although the presence of a number of Poles in its ranks, who were not particularly keen to fight for Germany, was considered a weakness. It was this division that was given the task of hanging on to Passchendaele until the weather finally forced the British to give up their attack.

A scene of devastation in
The left of the divisional attack suffered from the familiar problem of struggling through the morass of the Ravebeek valley before they could get to grips with the enemy. Graf Farm remained a thorn in the side of the attack whilst low flying German aircraft strafed the struggling infantry. This did have a faintly amusing side to it, as Nicholson reports:
‘One ground target that received particular attention during the attack was the start line of the 31st Battalion [to the north of Crest Farm], where German airmen mistook a row of greatcoats for troops.’
Passchendaele was entered by the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion and it was here that Private James Peter Robertson won his Victoria Cross.
He is the only one of the Canadian VCs killed at Passchendaele who has a known grave; he lies in Tyne Cot. He appears to have been quite a character of an enormous Highland family – six sisters and four brothers. He himself seems to have been larger than life, enormous man as he was. His fame spread amongst the locomotive engineers, his peacetime occupation. A Canadian paper reported that at;
'A great gathering of locomotive engineers in Cleveland [USA] after Private Robertson’s gallant deed and his fate became known, that gathering of 77,000 strong men from Canada and the United States rose and a standing vote honoured the memory of the first Locomotive Engineer VC’.
His widowed mother received the VC in Medicine Hat, where the Lieutenant-Governor commented:
‘This cross is only a small thing, its cost is very little, but it has engraved on it the words: “For Valour” which mean a great deal. Money can do much – with money titles can be bought, but money cannot buy the Victoria Cross.’
The Germans attempted to recapture the village later in the day, but Passchendaele had finally fallen. Things had gone well on the right of the 1st Divisional attack; Mosselmarkt fell much more easily than might have been anticipated, and in particular the principal pill-box fell with few losses, despite disgorging four officers and fifty men as prisoners. The real problems were away over to the left, where the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion faced considerable difficulties and where the last of Canada’s nine Victoria Crosses in the Passchendaele campaign was won.
The 1st and 2nd Battalions had the advantage of attacking either side of the Gravenstafel-Mosselmarkt road; the 3rd was separated from them by very swampy ground and had purely artillery support on its left. The 3rd Battalions objective was Goudberg, but it faced another one of the large, formidable German pill-boxes that were such a feature of this campaign – this one at Vine Cottage. The attack against this particular obstacle came from the higher ground on the north west, with the intention of taking it and then pushing back northwards. The pill-box was entirely constructed within the old farm building. The attack was launched upon it from three sides, but the heavy ground and the defensive fire made the grenades ineffectual; morale was not helped by the cries of the wounded, who were left, perforce, exposed under the driving rain, the cold winds and open to German fire and artillery shells.

the end of third ypres: the attack of 10 november 1917
The final action in the Third Battle of Ypres, which had begun some three-and-a-half months earlier on 31 July, and with such great possibilities, was to come to an end here, about five miles north east of Ypres.
The objectives, as described above, were very limited – this final phase of the battle only involved three [1st, 1st (Canadian) and 2nd (Canadian)] divisions on a very narrow front, which enabled the Germans to concentrate their artillery upon them, especially after the attack was over. The left of the attack (ie the British part) had gone well as the advance began at 6.45 am, but disaster struck when 1/South Wales Borderers veered too far off to the right. When the inevitable German counter-attack went in soon after 7am, it found this gap and was able completely to cut off the bulk of the left battalion, 2/Royal Munster Fusiliers, which consequently suffered horrendous losses – thirteen officers and 400 other ranks. The Borderers, left with their flank in the air, were forced to withdraw to their start line. The neighbouring Canadian Brigade was more successful, capturing Venture Farm and several field pieces; the debacle on its left meant that it had to throw out a protective left flank and meant that the British were creating a dangerously small salient in the German line.
Rear of a pill-box with a German gun partially buried after a British bombardment. (Taylor Library)

The right of the attack was to be by the 20th (Central Ontario) Battalion on its own; its task was to advance the line about five hundred yards, taking the line northerly along the ridge. The men were brought up to Hamburg Farm, where the planked track came to an end, from there to Hillside Farm and beyond was the pill-box that was battalion headquarters. There had been a potentially disastrous start to the journey.
‘As the Battalion detrained at the Ypres siding three great German Gotha planes, escorted by a dozen smaller and faster aircraft, sailed over Ypres, circled and came right overhead. A deluge of small bombs was expected at any moment, but the planes sailed off to the south-eastward, probably not having seen the expectant battalion. This was the first time the large Gothas had been seen, and it was difficult not to look up and gaze at them as they glistened overhead in the bright sunlight. After the first glance there was not a move in the battalion, which was in the act of assembling for the march to Potijze, and it is probably due to the discipline of each one present that the unit avoided casualties.’

A group of wounded Canadians, with a German prisoner, alongside a shattered pill-box.

This problem with German bombers is frequently mentioned in unit accounts of Passchendaele, as well as in numbers of individual accounts. This campaign witnessed the first major battle where bombers are mentioned with such regularity; no later significant battle would take place without their menace being felt or feared by the troops on the ground.
The battalion headquarters was in a former German pill-box, as had been many of the unit and advanced formation headquarters during this latter phase of Third Ypres. This one was typical of the larger variety:
‘A solid structure of reinforced concrete about twenty four feet by twenty two feet outside with walls three feet thick; the concrete roof was reinforced by steel rails and would turn any but the heaviest shells. The one entrance faced the enemy, but was closed to their direct fire by a heavy mass of solid concrete built inside the walls and forming two passageways, one to the right and one to the left, both leading to the structure’s one room. That room was about sixteen feet by ten feet and eight feet to the roof; machine gun slits, facing our lines, and a small hole in the roof provided the only ventilation, for a blanket hung at all times in the entrance; the only light was from the well-known candles. In that confined headquarters were crowded the headquarters of the 18th and 20th battalion for the next three days. The Germans, knowing that no other convenient shelter existed for use as a headquarter, shelled it almost without pause. Bodies that could not be buried in such an inferno lay all around it, and would have to lie until the operations ceased.’
The advance was rapid and without great difficulty; however a similar problem to that which had faced the 1st (Imperial) Division threatened when it was discovered that the neighbouring 7th Battalion on the left had overshot their objective and veered too far to the north; this gap was filled by some platoons of the 20th, and the line was ultimately brought back to its original objective because of creating an even more unmanageable salient into the German lines. The situation was bad enough, as the Germans were able to turn the batteries of several German corps upon the new line, leading an Australian to comment in his diary that the attack was:
‘On a very narrow front – almost as bad as at Pozières; and the Germans… concentrated an enormous amount of artillery on to the area which we took, and the British were driven in… The night is simply vile and the day too… If the Canadians can hold on they are wonderful troops’.
This aerial photograph was taken 27 October 1917 and clearly shows the ruin caused to the village of Passchendaele by British artillery.

The 20th also faced a couple of determined counter-attacks, but these were broken up by the artillery or by the battalion’s own firepower. To make themselves less vulnerable, the battalion had been pushed forward and positioned in small trenches and shell holes well over to the eastern side of the ridge.
11 November dawned sunny, for once in the while. A report came back that Sergeant C Stevens had gone five hundred yards into No Man’s Land and had returned with important documents. Actually, this soldier had not been inspired by military diligence but was engaged in that age old practice of finding souvenirs on the battlefield.
‘Emerging into No Man’s Land, he extended the sphere of exploration by going a good deal further than his predecessors [ie those who had also been on the lookout for desirable objects] and came upon two men lying face down in the mud. Rifles, with bayonets fixed, lay beside them. From the first he removed a pocket-book, found nothing else, and stooped over the body to get a flashlight lying beside the second. The “corpse” chose that moment to talk in its sleep… A few minutes later a badly alarmed sergeant arrived in our lines out of breath and clutching a pocket-book containing the “valuable documents” mentioned in the report.’
The ordeal of the battalion came to an end with its relief that night – but it took almost ten hours to complete.
‘After trailing through the mire, the Battalion assembled there [Seine Dump] in due course. The struggle to get out alive had been so great that many of the walking wounded died from exhaustion. All were almost unrecognisable. Everyone had three-day-old beards. Faces, hands and clothing were covered with mud. A few had no shoes, several had no puttees, many had no helmets, but none cared much. A special party from rear headquarters was at Seine Dump to carry the Lewis guns, arms and equipment so that the men could walk the rest of the way without encumbrance – a happy thought on someone’s part. After breakfast and a brief rest the march back to the tents at Potijze was begun…’
This could describe the experience of all the battalions that had fought in the battle for the village – British, Canadian, New Zealand or German. Whatever, the village was never to feature so prominently again in British military history. Passchendaele fell rapidly to the Germans in their Lys offensive, launched in April 1918, bringing bitter recriminations from many Canadians at the wasteful loss of life for a position that was lost within minutes. The Canadians had 15,654 casualties for their month or so on the Passchendaele front. The Germans pushed the Ypres Salient to its narrowest limits around that town since the war had begun; but Ypres did not fall, and the offensive failed. Passchendaele did not see British arms again; for it was an Army under the command of Albert, King of the Belgians, and Belgian troops, that finally liberated the red brick stained mud that had been Passchendaele in September 1918.
'...Without waiting for his comrades, he charged the remaining position with the bayonet, getting in mong the gunners and killing four of them before the rest of the platoon could arrive...'

A W Currie, Commander of the Canadian Corps.

'The attack was launched upon it from three sides, but the heavy ground and the defensive fire made the grenades ineffectual; morale was not helped by the cries of the wounded...'

A video showing images from Passchendaele, 1917.

The Victoria Cross, 'For Valour'.

Corporal Colin Fraser Barron vc
Corporal Colin Fraser Barron was awarded the Victoria Cross for his action at Passchendaele. His citation reads:
'Our men started to attack once more and, as they rose to their feet, a diversion occurred to the front. Corporal Barron, a Lewis gunner, had worked his way round to the flank with his weapon, and was knocking out the German crews, one after the other, with his well directed fire. Completely exposed, he directed his gun unconcerned by the point blank shooting of the enemy until he had silenced two of the opposing batteries [sic]. Then without waiting for his comrades, he charged the remaining position with the bayonet, getting in among the gunners and killing four of them before the rest of the platoon could arrive. The slackening of the heavy fire gave the Canadians the chance to get well forward and in a moment they were about the position. The guns Barron had been unable to reach kept up a heavy fire until our fellows were on top of them, when most of the crews surrendered, while others attempted to escape to the rear. But the Canadians had lost too many of their comrades to feel merciful, and they were infuriated at the general morale of men who would maintain murderous shooting until imminent danger pressed and then calmly sue for mercy. They took few prisoners. Corporal Barron had not finished his good work. Turning the enemy's guns about, he opened fire upon the retreating Germans, catching the groups upon the hillside, and shooting them down with such good effect that hardly a man escaped.'

'The left of the attack had gone well as the advance began at 6.45 am, but disaster struck when 1/South Wales Borderers veered too far off to the right.'

German soldiers killed during the battle for Passchendaele. (Taylor Library)

Wounded in Menin Road. (Taylor Library)

The Passchendaele experience
Photographs coloured by Jon Wilkinson.



Further Reading

(Paperback - 144 pages)
ISBN: 9780850525588

by Nigel Cave
Only £9.99

The British offensive, which became known as Passchendaele, got underway on 31 July, 1917 with the objective of capturing fifteen miles of territory.The attack quickly lost momentum and, it was not until finally in November that the line managed to advance seven miles.

With winter setting in, the British troops were subjected to some of the worst conditions they had ever faced. During the attack 265,000 were either killed or injured.

This battlefield guide gives details of the attacks whilst guiding the reader through…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...